Sun.  Sea Spray.  Hull smashing through rows of swells.  The ship’s deck heaving from and dropping into an endless parade of oncoming waves.  Turn your face towards the sun and catch a million dancing reflections on the water glistening back at you.

If you’re on a sailboat, there is no engine noise, just the sound of wind blowing through your hair.

Both Olcott brothers were watermen, even though they were descendants of the landlocked Dzūkija region of Lithuania.  I am a waterman too, raised on many afternoons of sailing on Shinnecock Bay, Long Island during my young summers in the 1960s with my Dad.

However, by the age of twelve, I had discovered a simple way to elevate the pleasure and excitement of wind, sea, and waves.  Instead of being on a boat in the water, how about doing away with the boat?  Watch sets of giant waves roll in while at sea level, exactly.  Body surfing.  Maximum exposure.  If you could time and catch them right, you could slide down a crystal slope while the tube of water breaks above and behind you.  The payoff is maybe eight seconds of pure exhilaration that seems to last perhaps up to half an hour.  You’ll never forget the view of giant slopes of water marching towards you, with the last wave looming higher over the others.  That last one, with the face of the sun sparkling back at you, will be the wave you want.  And sometimes, it will take a fair amount of courage to try to pick off that last wave, the king of the set.

But this was me in the water, maybe 30-50 yards away from the shore.  Both my Dad and his Brother crossed the oceans – what about seeing rogue waves 3,000 miles offshore?  I shudder to think what they must have gone through.

Set of waves

Photo courtesy of

Thus, they were competitors for the family Neptune crown.  As detailed in my post “THE FINEST ESCAPE” last week, my Dad crossed the ocean blue in July 1937 aboard the SS Exeter.  For his part, my Uncle Edward was no slacker – he got himself to be NY 2nd district Congressman Brunner’s 1st Nominee for the United States Naval Academy in 1935.  And then served on several ships in World War II as an officer starting in 1939.

Lt. Edward Olcott

Edward Olcott, US Naval Academy Official Portrait 1939.

That should have been the end of the tournament.  Edward was a naval officer and king of the seven seas, right?  Wrong! – as my Dad was quick to point out.  Even though he enlisted in the landlubbing US Army, he went on to win the nautical competition handily as Edward found himself stricken with numerous afflictions during his service, ending up in Psych wards with an “unable to perform his duties” diagnosis at military hospitals in Casablanca and St. Albans, Queens.


The two watermen.

To be the main waterman was of paramount importance to my Dad and he made sure to lay it on real thick whenever his own Mom or Dad were singing Edward’s praises (as they were wont to do).  Sometimes, those hymns led to him and I getting a bum’s rush out of my Grandfather’s house, see my post “MY GRANDFATHER AND THE DOOR TO THE OLD WORLD, PART 2.”

For all this, and their long history together, the only time I ever heard Dad mention his brother (my Uncle) was in a ruse he developed to pay only the cheapest long distance fees to the telephone company in the 1960s and 1970s.  It was done by playing an operator for what used to be called a “person-to-person” call.

In today’s world, we don’t give much mind to “long distance calls.”  Even with international calls, high charges are easy to beat by using Skype or phone cards.  However, fifty years ago, a call from New York to Florida (or even New Jersey) could cost as much as a couple of dollars and with phone tag an ever present possibility, you could make an expensive call only to hear that “Dave’s not here.”

International operators

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Now a couple of bucks may seem minor.  But what if you’re making hundreds of calls a day?  And why should a call from the Pan Am Building to Staten Island (distance, maybe 11 miles) cost 10¢ unlimited minutes per call, but one to Weehawken, NJ (distance, less than 3 miles) cost upwards of 25¢ a minute?!

This was amplified while Dad was traveling overseas.  For some reason, calling the US from Europe or Asia was 2-3 times more expensive than calling from the US to there.  This could amount to billable charges of $4.00-$5.00 a minute!  Is there any reason why this should be so?  Do the undersea cables care about direction?  I think not!

Dad overseas

Dad overseas, the 1970s.  Photo probably taken by Mrs. Gloria Olcott.

After meeting with a client in, say, London or Tokyo, Dad often had the need to review specific matters with the operations manager back in the office.

Operator assisted “person-to-person” long distance calls could serve to avoid expensive phone tag but of course at an increased cost.  The way it worked is that you dialed “0” before the number and when the long distance operator came on the line, you gave her your name and the name of the person you’re calling, and the operator did the rest of the legwork for you.  If the person called was absent, the operator asks you simply to try your call again later, and there was no charge.  If your person was there, the operator leaves you on the call and the cost of the connection is maybe double.

So how to pay the cheapest rate with an insured connection to the person you want to speak to?  And you’re calling from overseas and don’t want to pay five times the cost?

This was the deal: When Dad would call from overseas, everybody in the office knew the drill.  The office phone would ring, the secretary with the Jersey accent would answer the call, and the operator with the lilting foreign accent would explain politely that “Edward Olcott” was calling for “Bernard Olcott.  Was he there to accept to accept the call, please?” See, the names were reversed, that was the cue.

The secretary, who was in on the play, would blush as if she were James Bond’s date and patiently explain that “Bernard Olcott” just happened to step out but could he try “Edward” back later?  “Quite alright,” the international operator would readily agree, and thus the free call – and signal – would terminate with nary a red cent charged.  The message would be passed back to the operations manager who would then dutifully ring up Dad at the foreign hotel directly at 20% of the cost.

Edward must have saved Dad thousands of dollars.  His name certainly kept the phone bill down.

However, I have to write that I feel somewhat sad that I don’t know anything more about him.  That Dad never told me stories about him.  It can’t have been all bad, could it?

Edward Olcott passed away on July 29, 1977 in Honolulu and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery as a Word War II veteran.


Pretty much all I know of my Uncle Edward.  Except for the “person-to-person” gambit.


    1. Indications are that Edward was not an easy guy to get along with. And that seems to be an understatement. I am trying to get more details from my cousins on his side with no results to show for my efforts so far. They should know that I will keep any sensitive details confidential if they so wish.


  1. Your writing here is magnificent and gives me chills. It could be an interesting study by itself to observe how beauty can hurt. Like the sun in your eyes. Like the 7minor chord in music that gives me a profound longing, for what, I don’t know, but brings me to tears. Some music I feel quivering in my bones. I’ve never surfed, much less steered into a tube and out again –what a gorgeous exhilaration that must be! and you’ve captured it on these pages. Bravo, James.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Patty for your gracious comment.
      As a note to my readers, please be sure to check out her memoir “TEA ON THE GREAT WALL” for a first hand account of her childhood in the Foreign Concession, Shanghai in the 1930s. Foreign adventure, Nazis, lives and loves lost and regained. Patty’s work inspires mine.
      Please see:


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